Depending on who you ask, the biggest issue in gaming today could be misogyny, bad journalism, rampant Mountain Dew overdoses or any number of others. However, with the parallel releases of Assassin’s Creed Unity and Dragon Age: Inquisition an issue at the back of people’s minds has come to the forefront, the issue of review embargoes.
In simplest terms, an embargo is an agreement between the reviewer/media outlet/youtuber that in exchange for a review copy of the game any content published is restricted to a certain date, set by the publisher.
The reason embargoes are necessary is gamers by nature want news fast and will go to whoever has it. By setting a date of publication for ALL content, reviewers and journalists can be judged by content and skill, not by speed of posting. However, these embargoes can also be predatory, restricting the review/coverage of a game until the day of, or even after the games launch. The primary reason something like this occurs is because the publisher of the game is not confident in the product, the longer the public is ignorant to the quality of the game, the more money they’ll make on launch day. When one of these absurd embargoes appears, the publisher is saying to the industry “We don’t care about bad press post-launch, we need to make as much money as possible before the truth comes out.”
This is where our case study comes in.
On November 11th, Assassin’s Creed Unity launched. As the next edition in Ubisoft’s massive serialized franchise and the first on Next-Gen; expectations were high to say the least. However it soon came to light that for major outlets and personalities, the embargo would not lift until after the launch. TotalBiscuit and Kotaku’s Steven Totilo spoke out about this anti-consumer practice and with good reason, Unity shipped buggy with frankly egregious micro-transactions built in. This embargo was not to level the playing field or ensure competition, this was Ubisoft trying to mitigate the inevitable damage of this title’s release by delaying the inevitable reports.
In comparison, Dragon Age: Inquisition launched a week later on November 18th. The embargo date however was set a week earlier, so reviews came out concurrently with Assassin’s Creed Unity. This time the gaming media sang a different tune, Inquisition’s reviews were largely positive; the game is sitting at 89 and 90 on Metacritic and GameRankings respectively. This was the other kind of review embargo scenario, BioWare and EA were confident that they had produced a quality product and because of that they knew that reviews being out a week early would do nothing but benefit them. The rather funny side effect of this is that EA, the perceived “Evil Empire” of the games industry looked great and pro-consumer while Ubisoft, one of its biggest competitors seems malicious by comparison.
So we can see that while embargoes can be useful for the maintenance of parity in the games media industry, more than that they are tools usable by the publisher. It can be hard to look at an industry we all love so much in callous terms but we must remember that publishers are driven by profit and they will do whatever they can to maximize the return on their investment. And with regards to embargoes, by controlling when a review appears relative to the release of a game, publishers can exert a measure influence over how that game sells.
Sadly our enthusiasm as gamers is what feeds these anti-consumer practices. We want information quickly, we want to know everything about a title we’re excited about and some of us (myself occasionally included) can be drawn in by a flashy pre-order bonus. That enthusiasm, that devotion is what makes gamers great but we need to be aware of how it is being exploited in anti-consumer ways.
The last few months, for all the drama, has made many gamers more aware as consumers and if we want to see the end of predatory practices like this we need to be willing to change our habits. The interesting thing is that this issue of manipulation via review embargoes is incredibly solvable. All that is required for embargo abuse to disappear is for gamers to be willing to wait. Wait for reviews that come out a day or two after the game launches and embargoes lose 100% of their power. Refuse to pre-order a game and publishers will not be as willing to push an incomplete product out to meet a given launch date.
It’s going to take all of us, but we can stop the necessary evils of the games industry, starting with embargoes and we can get back to the thing we all love, playing video games.